10 facts about being a food stylist

What Chefs Should Know About This Unique Career Path

By Kenya McCullum

That juicy burger billboard on the side of the highway enticing people to come to a certain restaurant. The attractive representations of dishes in the pages of a cookbook that get readers excited about trying them out in their own kitchens. The ham and cheese sandwich an actor eats during a television show. From cookbooks to advertisements to movies and television, the work of food stylists can be seen in numerous places every single day. In fact, every time companies need food to look appealing in any kind of medium, there is a food stylist behind the scenes cooking it.

According to Laura Woods’ article on Chron.com, “Food stylists are responsible for arranging food to look appetizing in situations where it will not be consumed. These professionals are often hired to style food being photographed for cookbooks, advertisements, magazines and menus. They use a variety of techniques to make food appear edible and ready for consumption. Food stylists coordinate with chefs, editors and photographers to create the desired outcome for the client. Selecting accessories such as plates, table linens and place mats is often their responsibility. In some cases the food stylist may serve as the photographer.” On average, food stylists make around $61,000 a year.

For many chefs, food styling may seem like an attractive alternative career path that allows them to utilize their skills in new and interesting ways. And it certainly is that and more. However, it’s important for people interested in food styling to know the realities of this profession — because it’s not always as glamorous as chefs may think. The following are ten facts to know if you’re considering heading into this unique corner of the culinary world.

Virginia Willis
Some of food stylist Virginia Willis’ work

Food styling starts in culinary school. While many schools don’t specifically offer food styling courses, culinary students are already learning some of the fundamental skills they need to become a food stylist. In addition to executing dishes and presenting plates on a regular basis, they learn food styling essentials like sanitation skills. And if students attend culinary schools that offer food styling or photography classes, it’s a great way for them to familiarize themselves with the marriage of cooking and aesthetics that happens in the food styling world.

Chef Missy 2
Missy Smith-Chapman, chef-instructor of Pastry and Baking Arts at The Institute of Culinary Education

Strong savory and sweet skills are both necessary. Food stylists are expected to prepare a wide variety of dishes, and they never know from one project to the next what their clients will dream up. As a result, it’s important for them to be skilled with both sweet and savory dishes in order to ensure they can make their clients happy at every gig.

“You really need to be very well-rounded because you don’t know if you are making a wedding cake or you are doing a prime rib,” says Missy Smith-Chapman, chef-instructor of Pastry and Baking Arts at The Institute of Culinary Education, who worked as a food stylist on several television shows, such as “Westworld,” “NCIS,” “Lastship” and “One Day She’ll Darken.” “Food styling is not meant for somebody just doing a patisserie program, so you really need to embrace both sides.”

It’s a tough business to break into. Although food styling training ultimately begins in culinary school, people who want to pursue this career path need to get in the trenches in order to break into the field. That can be done by working as an apprentice for food stylists, which gives chefs an idea of the nuts and bolts of the business while proving their ability to do the job. After a while, this experience will translate into paid work.

Kersti Bowser 2
Kersti Bowser (right) doing some food styling on the set of Fox and Friends

A freelance mindset is necessary. Food stylists typically work on a contract basis (some companies do hire full-time, in-house food stylists, but it’s not the norm), so it’s important for them to get used to a freelance mindset. That means not only making sure they are paid for the work that they’ve done, but also marketing their services and networking on a regular basis to ensure that the work is coming in steadily.

“It’s the plight of the freelancer. You never know when the phone is going to ring and as time kind of lapses, after a while you get a little bit more nervous and you start rethinking your life,” says Kersti Bowser of Gourmet Butterfly Production House, whose food styling specializations include live television and cooking shows, as well as print and online media. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called the CIA to say, ‘Look, I’m coming back and I’m going to work on my next degree,’ and then the phone rings.”

Food stylists must wear many hats. Since clients do not always have the budgets necessary for a food stylist to hire an assistant, they often end up doing all of the shopping, prepping, dishwashing, and cooking themselves. In addition to handling all of these tasks, food stylists also bring their own supplies, so they need to be strong enough to carry things like coolers filled with food, microwaves, and toaster ovens.

You’ll cook the same dish over and over. Chefs strive for perfection in the kitchen, and with food styling, that’s exactly what the client expects. This means cooking the same dish multiple times to get it exactly the way the client wants it to look on camera. “You make extra of everything,” says Smith-Chapman. “Sometimes it has to be a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich and that’s what you’re doing for 12 hours, and you have 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” Thus…

A lot of food will be wasted. Since food stylists are required to go through so much food to make that perfect dish, there is often a lot of waste that is generated during a gig. In some cases, the leftovers can be given to the crew on a shoot or donated to a food bank if it’s still edible, but oftentimes, food ends up being thrown away because it’s been sitting out all day.

Virginia Willis 3
Some of Virginia Willis’ food styling work

Food doesn’t feel like food anymore. For chefs, food is a romantic experience that is a feast for all of the senses. But with food styling, the thing that matters most is how it looks. “As a chef, it’s really weird because the food just becomes like a prop, it’s just like any other inanimate object really,” says Virginia Willis, commercial and editorial food stylist and cookbook author. “The more you do commercial food styling, the less food-like it is.”

There will be a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Just as the diner is always right in a restaurant, the client is always right on a food styling job. In many cases, that means there will be input from several people on the set — photographers, art directors, clients — and they will all have an opinion about what should be done with the food. Although they may have differing ideas, it’s food stylists’ responsibility to put their opinions aside and do what the decision-makers want.

“When those kinds of jobs happen that’s when I put my ego in a box, put it in the closet, and I pick it back up when I come home. I just literally become hands,” says Willis. “I have my opinion, but if the client really has expectations and they know what they want, then I am simply there to fulfill their wishes.”

No job is ever too small. Since food stylists usually work on a freelance basis, they should get used to saying “yes” to any gigs they are offered in order to keep their businesses thriving.

“Don’t say ‘no’, take every job that you can. Nothing is ever too low of a job,” says Bowser. “Even to this day, if you asked me to peel a hundred pounds of potatoes because it has to be done, and I sit on a crate outside in the rain because that’s the only way of getting it done, I’ll do it.”